PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Scott Barnes has been on the job less than two weeks, yet the new Pittsburgh athletic director already has a clear vision about what should be the top item of his “to do” list. It’s the same as the second. And the third. And the fourth.
Football. More exactly: how to generate buzz for a program that has been listing for the better part of three decades. Winning consistently would help. So would a better fan experience at Heinz Field. Oh, and a schedule that includes Penn State on a consistent basis.
Barnes can’t do much about winning than make sure head coach Pat Narduzzi has all the tools necessary to make inroads in the Atlantic Coast Conference. As for the rest of it, everything is on the table. Especially the idea of turning the rekindling of a dormant rivalry with the Nittany Lions into a semi-annual event.
Pitt and Penn State will meet for the first time since 2000 when the Nittany Lions visit the Panthers in 2016, the first of four straight meetings. Barnes has already reached out to Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour in hopes of working on a longer-term deal, calling extending the matchup a “priority.”
“We want to play that game as long as we can, home and home,” Barnes said Thursday. “We’re working hard to get that moving forward. Just started conversations.”
It’s hardly the only one Barnes is having. He has already sat down with Narduzzi for more than two hours to figure out a way to build on the momentum that Narduzzi has carefully cultivated since replacing Paul Chryst last December. The Panthers picked up 3,500 new season-ticket holders during the offseason, an emphatic endorsement of the energetic Narduzzi. Barnes is actively seeking a group of 20 fans, alumni and students to serve as a nerve center that will recommend changes to help the atmosphere on game days. He used it to great effect at Utah State, working on everything from streamlining the concession stands to making sure the cheerleaders and marching band are on the same page.
Taken on their own, they’re not much. Combine them, however, and Barnes hopes they can provide the kind of impactful changes that will make watching the Panthers in person a better alternative to sitting at home with a beer in hand and the remote in the other.
And while Pitt has made considerable strides in other sports during former athletic director Steve Pederson’s tenure, Barnes was hired as to give the football program a jolt.
“A rising tide lifts all boats and that rising tide is football,” he said. “If we can get football right, then all our programs succeed … Our best opportunity for growth is very clear, and that is football.”
To that end Barnes will try to reach out to an alumni base that he admits hasn’t been effectively brought into the fold. There are certain market factors in Pittsburgh that schools like Florida State and Clemson don’t face. The Panthers are hardly the only game in town and a seemingly endless carousel of coaches has made gaining traction difficult.
“I don’t know if scarred is the right word, but we’ve had fans that have been her for decades that have been here for the tough years and the good years,” he said. “They’re certainly looking forward to the next set of good years.”
Barnes is convinced Narduzzi can get it done, even if the former Michigan State defensive coordinator was hired by a selection committee months before Barnes was tapped to take over for Pederson.
“We have the right leader,” Barnes said. “I think Pat will do a remarkable job. We have to do our best to support him.”
Having deeper pockets wouldn’t hurt. Barnes wants to make the recruiting process more efficient, including allowing coaches to use chartered planes provided by a donor for some trips. It’s the kind of luxury the Panthers simply couldn’t afford but one that Barnes knows is necessary if the Panthers want to get serious about finding the right players for the program to flourish.
“That’s a gap that we’ve got to fill that we can fill very easily,” Barnes said.
So is a $3.5 million renovation at the team’s practice facility, a bill he expects to be paid through donations. Barnes can feel the palpable thirst for winning from a fan base he calls “high care.” His goal is to make sure that thirst expands.
“Pittsburgh wants a winner,” Barnes said. “We’re winners and we’re going to prove that.”